Interview: ‘Old party politics must go’

Interview with the New European

Layla Moran talks to Tim Walker about how parties and political opponents should find ways to work together to tackle the coronavirus.

In this brave new world, politicians are gasping for relevance. Holed up in her constituency home in Oxfordshire, Layla Moran, a former teacher, is managing to keep us attentive. More than that, she’s getting the government to sit up and listen.

“It was clear to me from the outset that the public expected politicians to work together and get on with fighting the common enemy,” says the 37-year-old Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. “There are of course questions that Boris Johnson will have to face once we have got through all of this, but this isn’t the time for political fights. That’s the last thing the public wants. This is simply about crisis management.”

Moran was among the first to see how important it was that the UK opted into an EU joint procurement scheme to bulk-buy ventilators and other medical equipment to help coronavirus patients.

She fired off a letter to Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to tell him that breathing had become eminently more important to most people than Brexit.

Against a bitter turf war between Hancock and Michael Gove, Moran managed to secure an assurance from the government that it would participate in future schemes.

She says she will “hold its feet to the fire” on this one, and has since drawn attention to a number of other problems that need to be addressed, not least in terms of how the crisis will impact upon the nation’s mental health.

“I’m lucky in that I live within five minutes of a field and I can take solitary walks there every now and again,” she says. “It’s different for people living in the inner-cities and we need to think about what effect being cooped up inside until potentially June or even beyond is going to have on people.

“My local vicar made the point that people who lose loved ones in this epidemic will not be able to grieve for them in the normal way.

“There will not be the comfort of a funeral service, but potentially just mass burials. This is going to be very difficult for people to handle.”

Moran has also begun an online petition to ensure that frontline workers fighting against the virus should receive a compensation scheme that’s no less generous than the one that’s currently in place for members of the armed forces. She recognises it’s no less heroic to risk your life against a virus than it is enemy fire.

Good, practical ideas and grassroots initiatives appeal to her at the moment a lot more than grandiose ones.

There had been talk of a government of national unity, but Moran, ever practical, says this is not the time to start switching ministers of state.

She has taken part in the daily cross-party conference calls with the cabinet office minister Penny Mordaunt and says the government is showing a willingness to listen, and, where necessary, to act.

Attitudes are changing rapidly. As she points out, workers previously dismissed by the government as “low-skilled” are now suddenly accepted as indispensable.

She would like, however, to see a “more formalised way” for the various parties to work together and their voices to be heard at the COBRA meetings to discuss how to handle the unfoldingcrisis.

“Where the Lib Dems are running councils, we are asking the other parties to get involved with the response. I’d like to see that happening nationally, too. This government obviously came into office with a very specific task in mind, but that hasn’t turned out to be the very specific task that’s required.

“The bandwidth is therefore limited. It is not helpful, either, that we have gone into this with a great many people wary of Johnson – not least the young – because he has made very little attempt to engage with them.

“If I’d a choice of potential prime ministers to handle this crisis, I’d never have picked this one, but the fact is he isn’t at the moment doing so badly in the polling.

“I wouldn’t say that he has shown himself to be ahead of the curve, but he would appear to be at a point where a very large proportion of the public is.

“Clearly they didn’t want to go into lockdown any more than he did, but now he’s realised it’s our best chance, then probably they can accept the order from him.”

Moran knows some of the key scientists currently advising the government – among them Neil Ferguson, whose modelling has informed the UK’s strategy on the virus – and she says she has “every confidence” in their expertise.

“Their job is to speak truth unto power and it’s also the job of power to listen. Government needs, however, to explain its actions all the way through this. It’s patronising to think it’s all too complicated for us.

“Alastair Campbell has rightly criticised the messaging we’ve had so far. It’s great the government agreed to the calls for daily press conferences, but there needs to be greater preparation for them.

“If a journalist asks on any given day what number of beds are available in intensive care units up and down the country, I expect those taking these conferences to have that figure at their fingertips.”

When this interview was originally planned, the idea had been for Moran to set out her stall as a candidate for the Lib Dem leadership.

To the dismay of a great many of its members, this process was last week put on hold for a year to allow the party to focus on fighting the virus. This means that Ed Davey – alongside party president Mark Pack – will end up presiding over the party as its acting leader for three times longer than Jo Swinson, who comprehensively beat him in the party’s last leadership election.

Moran accepts the decision of the federal board, but hopes that, should the battle against the virus take a turn for the better, they may “reconsider” the length of the delay.

She anticipates Keir Starmer winning the Labour leadership contest with a “thumping majority,” and, while she believes this will pose challenges for her party, she is adamant that liberal values will be more important than ever.

“Parliament no longer sits and we’ve given the government unprecedented emergency powers, but once this is over we must be sure to reclaim the freedoms we’ve temporarily surrendered.

“The world we knew and understood before this virus struck will have changed beyond recognition by then. There’s a political battle that we are already seeing beginning between those who reckon it should be a much tougher world – a place where the state is scaled back and only the fittest survive – and others who see, even at this dark hour, how much better things can be.

“The air is cleaner. We see now how our lives can actually depend upon international cooperation, people don’t have to sleep on the streets and we value now our NHS more than ever. What’s more, we understand the responsibilities we all have to each other within our communities.

“I think it’s given us a moment of enlightenment. The old politics, the right-wing press, even Brexit which we had all been fighting over so passionately until this happened, all seem suddenly unimportant. This has given us a new sense of perspective. I think out of this terrible global ordeal ahead of us, good may yet come, but only if we are prepared to be open to it.”

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